North American writer, teacher and theologian, Brad Jersak, was in Australia recently, and we were able to spend a day hearing him sharing his convictions about God and his love, Jesus and the atonement, and life.
There was a lot to like and learn from, and some challenging ideas – all worth sharing with you.
The gospel according to Brad
Thinking about God
There are many different ways of thinking about God, and Brad suggested many of them are “toxic”. For example:
- Angry and wrathful – the God who smites.
- The “deadbeat dad” – distant, uninvolved and silent.
- Doting Grandpa – everything we do is fine with him.
- Santa Jesus – we only have to bother about him once per year.
- The holy God who can’t look upon sin and is unapproachable.
In contrast Brad referred to 1 John 4:7-21, which says God’s essence is love (v 8, 16). Other notable features of this passage are:
- v7 – “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” Everyone??
- v10 – He says the meaning of atonement has changed over time from “reconciliation” to “appeasement”.
- v18 – “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” We should be wary of forms of christianity that are built on fear.
We should avoid thinking that God is both love and justice or love and holiness. Rather, his justice and holiness are aspects of his love, which is his essence.
The gospel the apostles preached
He said that the normal evangelical gospel is never taught by the apostles in Acts. Their preaching was of this form:
- God sent his son.
- You killed him.
- God raised him.
- He is Lord.
I feel this is helpful, but a simplification, and I think he said the same. There were other important elements, and the exact formulation varied with the setting and the audience. But the good news (= gospel) that Jesus preached was about the coming of the kingdom (or reign) of God and his place as king in that kingdom, so Brad’s formulation is certainly closer than the modern evangelical “gospel”.
The early church fathers’ view of Jesus’ death
Hebrews 2:14-15. Our problem, he says, isn’t sin, for God can forgive that, rather it is death and the fear of death. So the God who can’t die became a human who dies, and so blows death apart and, having defeated the devil, brings all his captives out of Sheol. This certainly echoes Colossians 2:13-15.
Romans 5:9-11. He says the “wrath” (v9) isn’t God’s anger but the inevitable result (= wages) of our sin – God “giving us over” to the consequences of our own choices (see also Romans 1:24, 26, 28), I can’t say I’m totally convinced by this way of explaining God’s wrath, although I’m sure it captures an important aspect.
More importantly, he argues from Romans 5:10 that we were reconciled to God in the past, before we ever responded to him in repentance and faith, while our salvation (from death) is still in the future. So, he says, the invitation to all is: “You have been reconciled, so come home!”
So is everyone saved in the long run?
There were several places in the above passages where the suggestion was that we are all reconciled to God, we just have to accept that. This is a form of universalism, but it still includes all the classic evangelical elements:
- Sin is bad.
- Jesus had to die.
- We will all be judged.
- A free and willing response is necessary.
He commented that this is his hope, but he doesn’t regard it as a doctrine we can be sure of.
Being born again
Brad made the observation that physically, we are conceived 9 months before we are born, and it is the same spiritually. So when are we conceived spiritually? He concluded that the Spirit is at work in non-believers, and sometimes our task is to recognise his work, and be midwives (John 1:9, Acts 10:35).
He told several wonderful stories of how this idea helped him when counselling people.
- A drug addict had a near death experience where she saw a white light, which reached out to her, and entered her heart. She talked to the light and it answered. Brad told her that the same light entered the world, and told two stories from the Bible of how Jesus treated women with respect.
- Amanda came to his office seeking help. If I remember the story correctly, Brad prayed that God would reveal to her the source of her shame, and it was related to her being abused as a child. Abbreviating the story a little, she saw a picture of Jesus washing off her shame. Brad was then able to ask her: would you like him to wash off all your shame? Yes! Would you like him to be your best friend forever? Yes!
My personal response to these teachings was very positive. There is very little that I disagree with.
But it does seem to me that much of what he said can and should be balanced by other scriptural teachings that express a different facet of the truth. For example:
- I feel his explanation of God’s wrath as being the inevitable outcome of our actions, attractive though it may be, doesn’t fully cover what the whole Bible says about God. I think we can explain some Old Testament teachings as being primitive and pre-christian (Should christians accept everything in the Old Testament as truly from God?), but it is hard to explain New Testament passages (like Luke 3:7, Romans 2:5 and Romans 12:19) that way. I agree that “God is love” is the fundamental truth about God, but we must somehow understand his love as being tough and unrelenting.
- His support for universalism has a reasonable Biblical basis and surely expresses a hope we can all share, but it ignores so much Biblical teaching – e.g Jesus’ warnings of the possibility of “destruction” in the age to come (Matthew 7:13, 10:28). Overall, I think the Biblical teaching is against his view (see Hell – what does the Bible say?).
- He says that the word translated atonement is no longer used in its original meaning of “reconciliation” and now is commonly taken to mean “appeasement”. There is much argument about this, and about theories of the atonement, and I certainly think the Christus Victor model (which is close to his view) has a strong scriptural basis. But I think that the attempt by many christians these days to reject the theory of penal substitution doesn’t properly reflect many passages in the scriptures (see Why did Jesus have to die?).
- I agree with his assessment that the gospel the apostles preached in Acts (and that Jesus preached too) is very different to the gospel that is commonly preached today, but I feel there is some Biblical justification for what is done today. I think today’s gospel needs to be changed to be Biblical, but not entirely rejected.
Don’t let the doubts deter you
While I feel Brad Jersak misses some important nuances, I believe his teachings are well worth taking notice of. And his way of sharing christian faith and ministering to hurting people seems to be something we can all learn from. Recommended.
Photo from Brad’s website.